In the countdown to the forthcoming Boekenweek – a week-long celebration of books and literary culture held in the Netherlands each March – the independent publisher World Editions is celebrating the best of Dutch literature in translation by way of a blog tour profiling three of their authors. Today, on the very first day of the tour, Books By Women is thrilled to be hosting an author profile of Esther Gerritsen whose books Craving and Roxy are both published by World Editions.
Craving has just been adapted for the screen and was premiered last month at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. In the novel, we follow the troubled relationship between Coco and her mother Elisabeth, who is terminally ill. Those who loved Deborah Levy’s Hot Milkwill enjoy this psychologically complex novel. Read on to find out more about the multiple award-winning Dutch author…
Esther Gerritsen’s daughter is also a writer although she can’t yet write. The four-year-old doesn’t mind being made to wait in another room while her mother is being interviewed but she can’t resist occasionally slipping a note under the door.
The messages are drawn and textless and her mother invariably greets the rustling under the door with, ‘Oh, post!’ Gerritsen: “My daughter is a postman. No, really! She writes notes for the neighbours and we deliver them together. She also makes books, which basically comes down to bundling together a stack of paper. All that’s left for me to do is fill it with writing and the book is finished.”
This harmonious alliance is a far cry from the mother-daughter relationship in Craving, Gerritsen’s novel which was shortlisted for the Dutch Libris Literature Prize. The novel focuses on the chilly relationship between the mother, Elisabeth, and her daughter, Coco. Elisabeth is dying; Coco moves in to care for her. Coco’s motives for doing this prove to be more egotistical than first assumed, while Elisabeth, despite her severe condition, remains a cold mother. Reflecting on motherhood, Gerritsen notes: “Being a mother meant watching my child destroy the entire household and allowing it.”
How does a book about a mother who loves her things more than she loves her daughter come into being?
“Craving evolved out of a book I had been working on for a year but which I couldn’t get off the ground. I started working on it thinking, ‘I want to write about someone who is utterly devoted to things.’ Elisabeth was in a sort of heaven in which she was surrounded by everything she had collected throughout her life. Her first doll, furniture, and whatnot, and all in pristine condition. You see, I’d noticed that children always feel terrible when it’s their fault that something breaks because at that phase objects mean so much to them. Elisabeth had to be someone who had never grown out of this magical children’s world. The book’s title was to be The Showroom, and though I still think that the theme of an old woman looking back on her life via her possessions can work for a novel, after a year of writing I had only 40 pages to show for it. ‘Where is her conflict?’ I asked myself at a certain point; ‘how can I make her vulnerable?’ ‘A child,’ I thought, ‘she must have a child.'”
With the daughter, Coco, however, Gerritsen added much more to the book than a materialistic woman’s conflict. By her own account, for Gerritsen, Coco became someone driving her to explore the topics of ‘mania and immoderation.’ At a certain point in the story Coco goes off the rails, losing herself in her longing for sweets, alcohol and unbridled sex. Due to Coco, Craving becomes a novel totally different to that which Gerritsen’s readers have grown used to. The novel is tempestuous, and the impression arises that in this book Gerritsen is breaking free of her somewhat controlled working methods in novels such as Superdove or Ordinary Days.
Does the failure of The Showroom show that you were somehow writing yourself into a corner?
“I’ve always embarked on novels from a cerebral standpoint and have had to struggle to fill them with a conflict and a plot. But with Elisabeth I had an extremely cerebral premise: she loved stuff and was at the same time… well… dead. By adding Coco I was in completely different territory. Craving is also my first novel written from two perspectives as opposed to one.”
While you were working on Craving you were also writing columns for the VPRO TV guide, which have been collected as I Am Often Briefly Stupid. What is striking is that in this book, too, there is a discernible turn. The first columns have a unique tone and are humorous but, three quarters of the way into the book, a real change can be felt after the time of your divorce and your becoming manic.
“I wasn’t really manic, but I came close. It’s possible that the liberation I experienced as a writer in Craving, as well as in my columns, was noticeable. It may sound intense, but everything changed. And this didn’t happen because I wanted it to. I thought that everything was well in my life and that I had no need to change anything. That’s what was so intense: that my way of thinking had to become different. I had a breakthrough and I think I’ve even begun to define ‘writing’ itself in completely different terms.”
“I… don’t think anymore about things such as ‘stagnation’ or ‘conflict’ for instance. My craft always entailed my constraining someone’s perspective in order to send them mad and cause everything to get out of hand. These characters would then become entangled in their own delusions. I’ve always wanted to escape that, but it was difficult.
“The well from which I currently draw, thus during the writing of Craving and also with my new book, is much deeper. I’m more intrepid about it. So the beginning of my new book is bursting with conflicts, whereas before I had to search for them. I now know: it’s okay to get off to a boisterous start. My books won’t ever get crude or banal anyway.
“I recently went to a concert by bass player Marcus Miller at the North Sea Jazz Festival and before playing he talked about his music. And that was such a revelation to me that I… this is going to sound real spacey… suddenly understood everything. I thought: now I get it. I get why I write, I get why I find interviews difficult. He said something about the way his music is constructed, about the lines in a number and how he interweaves everything. ‘Good writing’ is the same for me. When it goes well everything is intermingled. Emotions, values, anecdotes, melodies. Anything can influence writing as long as it results in a composition.”
It sounds like you work more intuitively now.
Surprised: “No, this is all analysis, of course.”
Pardon? Aren’t you talking about the ideal starting point for your current writing?
“It’s mostly that I now know how I see the world and how I can translate that into writing. Let me explain. A girlfriend and I recently wanted to park our bikes in a bike rack after going for a ride. I saw that my friend’s leg was in front of the rack I wanted to station my bike in, but still, I kept pushing. At that moment my empathy was overruled by my determination to park that bike.
“Judging by such an incident, I could conclude that I am an egoistic or highly strung person but actually I don’t think that’s the case. At that moment I was still in the melody, I think that’s the right word, of the biking and that’s why it happened. If you look at the world in such a way it almost becomes value-less. And that amalgam of melodies can be found in almost all levels of life. That’s what appeals to me about it, that it’s an abstract viewpoint and it isn’t derived from the makeup of someone’s so-called character.”
And subsequently you want to create situations where this multitude of melodies can really come into its own?
“Elisabeth certainly has an extreme character, of course. Such a person always listens to just one melody: a stoic, endless, steady drone. She can hear that she should muster something like motherly love, and in her own way she does, to a small extent, but at that moment it’s still… subordinate… music.
“I would still very much like to enter someone’s head; that hasn’t changed. But, as a writer, you can increasingly manage complexity. In primary school I once gave a talk about Martin Luther King. Everything I had to say about him fit neatly onto one sheet of A4 paper. Afterwards the teacher said: ‘It is certainly difficult to explain everything about such a man in such a short period.’ I was astonished: I really thought I had said everything there was to say about King. When I first started writing books I found that I had said everything I wanted to within 15 pages. Nowadays when I finish writing a book I think: is that it? Couldn’t I have written this in a month instead of a year?”
In one of your columns you write that during a period of mania life is beautiful but also harder.
“And that helped set the tone for Craving. The book is good, if I may say so, but not gentle, not sweet. My own life was a mess, simple as that, and suddenly I was concerned with completely different matters. And that immediately goes into the novel you’re then working on. Not as an anecdote but as the music playing in your life at that moment. The chaos, the noise, the speed, they just had to be written about.”
And the music playing in your head now? What kind of novel will that lead to?
“I’m currently working on a book in which I explore friendship and the possibility of truly equal relationships. But more importantly, it should have a hopeful ending. I would really like to try to write something like that.”
Doing this, you stray far from the methods of working you have employed in the past.
“It’s incredibly difficult to write about consolation, about love or about friendship, about things you yourself truly believe in or that you would like to pass on to your children.”
Where does such an attitude fit into current literary fashion, in which increasingly harsh judgements about man must be made in order to be able to make an impression?
“A.M. Homes does that, writing novels where she looks for what does work between people. These novels aren’t necessarily good but it is good that they are being written. In my books good intentions don’t hold out, communication is bad; in short: I show what doesn’t work. It’s not only easier; it’s also more fun to do. But, as an author, to plod through and end up with a book about what does work may be the ultimate achievement. And this is what I want but you need guts because you risk becoming a laughing stock.”
You would have to create a completely different character for that. Because until now your characters have been burdened by a sort of weakness of character, or a lack of will.
“Not completely. Yes, Coco doesn’t know what she wants; she doesn’t succeed in believing in anything. But Elisabeth definitely does have a will, only she knows that what she wants won’t be accepted by society.”
So, your characters either have no will or they cover it up.
“Well, what does ‘will’ mean anyway? I also constantly forbid myself to do certain things. When you stretch discord to the extreme you get insanity. The problem isn’t the other people or the practical drawbacks but the constant clashing of two voices. Since living alone half the time and the other half with my daughter I’ve realized that I’m extremely conservative. Even though nobody can see at what time we eat and whether we do it at the table or in front of the television, I apparently still feel that dinner should be at 6pm and at the table.”
Translated from interview by Sebastian Kort in NRC https://www.nrc.nl/
Playwright and novelist Esther Gerritsen (1972) grew up in Gendt, near Nijmegen in the Netherlands and studied Theatre in Writing for Performance at the HKU University of the Arts in Utrecht. She debuted in 2000 with a collection of short stories entitled Bevoorrecht bewustzijn (Privileged Consciousness), followed by several theatre texts and the novels Normale dagen (Ordinary Days), De kleine miezerige god (The Teeny Measly God) and Superduif (Superdove). Her novel Dorst (Craving) was published in 2012 and shortlisted for the Libris Literature Prize. Gerritsen has also been writing columns for the VPRO TV guide since 2010.
The relationship between Coco and her mother Elisabeth is uneasy, to say the least. Running into each other by chance, Elisabeth casually tells Coco that she is terminally ill. When Coco moves in with her mother in order to take care of her, aspects of their troubled relationship come to the fore once again. Elisabeth tries her best to conform to the image of a caring mother, but struggles to deal with Coco’s erratic behaviour and unpredictable moods.
NEXT STOP on the Blogtour
11th Feb www.tripfiction.com GIVEAWAY OF 5 COPIES OF CRAVING
13th Feb LINDASBOOKBAG Exclusive extract of CRAVING and video Interview with Esther Gerritsen
15th Feb Lizzy’s Literary Life Meet The Translator, with Michele Hutchison, Translator of CRAVING
16th Feb Winstons Dad Exclusive extract of CRAVING and review
26th Feb Readerdad Exclusive extract of The Darkness That Divides Us
14th March Randomthingsthroughmyletterbox Exclusive extract of You Have Me To Love
15th March www.davidsbookworld Review of You Have Me To Love
More about WORLD EDITIONS
World Editions is an independent publisher set up to bring international literature to a global readership. World Editions brings English readers the best literature other countries have to offer. Some of the highlights are Speechless by the bestselling author Tom Lanoye (Belgium), the beautiful and powerful Khomeini, Sade and Me by Abnousse Shalmani (France), and Something Written by Emanuele Trevi.